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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 21.21%
Average: 21.21%
Pretty Bad: 21.21%
Total Crap36.36%

3 reviews, 15 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"A Helplessly Fascinating Robert Altman Botch"
3 stars

It's slow. It's joyless. It's about as entertaining as a documentary on bass fishing. Yet, for the oddest reasons, you just can't take your eyes off it.

Who would have thought that the prolific Robert Altman, the celebrated director of M*A*S*H, The Player, and Dr. T & the Women, would have an apocalyptic sci-fi film hanging in his cinematic closet somewhere? Quintet, released back in 1979 to critical disdain and emptied-out theaters, is the ultimate cinematic eccentricity -- it's also one of the most lunk-headed, dense, and confusing films ever made. It's hard as hell to pin down on any particular level because Altman went to such extremes to make an unorthodox film that you just don't know how to key off of or logically respond to it. Love it or loathe it, however, one thing is for sure: you've never seen anything even remotely like it in your life.

Quintet is largely allegorical, with parts of it hinting at a thriller aspect that aren't tautly rendered enough to get us suitably caught up in the action, and the weakly drawn characters and nondescript performances are major stumbling blocks as well, preventing us from partaking in the film's intended mystical journey with anything more than a half-hearted shrug. Still, as disassociated and lumbering a film experience that it most definitely is, there's something undeniably baffling about its abilities to fascinate and consistently engage our senses, even when it's boring the living hell out of you.

It's almost as if Altman set out here to separate the men from the boys, the generic popcorn audience from the daring filmgoing adventurers, where actually getting through the entire one-hundred-and-eighteen-minute running time without nodding off once is not only a bravura feat but indicative of a true sense of appreciation for risk-taking cinema. I know this sort of overall assessment may come off as being incredibly kooky, but Quintet is chock-full of kookiness in every sense of the word -- to thoroughly endure it and respond favorably to its innate outlandishness, you need to be able to re-align your mind-set to a level where apprehension is high and your bullshit detector is disabled.

Paul Newman headlines an international cast as Essex, a seal hunter who, along with his pregnant companion, Vivia (the lovely Brigitte Fossey), is just looking to survive in a desolate world after the polar ice caps have melted, re-frozen, and transformed Earth into an ice-covered wasteland of ultimate despair. These two could be wandering over the middle of Antarctica for all we know at the beginning; most of the population has died out due to the extreme cold and depleted food supply. Essex, a man with way too few options up his fur-lined coat sleeves and nowhere else to turn, attempts to locate his brother inside a massive underground city, which used to be home to as many as five million people, we're told. Upon their arrival, the population has dwindled to about one-ten-thousandths of that. The survivors, having nothing better or meaningful to do to pass the time away, spend the remainder of their lives endlessly playing a backgammon-like board game called "Quintet".

The extraordinary production and art designs by Leon Ericksen and Wolf Kroeger perfectly compliment and serve the material at hand: there's not a single primary color to be found, with the predominating gray and dirty white interiors expressively reflecting the inhabitants' aura of hopelessness. Also, for some odd reason, Altman had the cinematographer, Jean Bofferty, shoot the film with a white, frost-like blur encircling the entire periphery of the camera lens, so even when a character enters a scene they're not actually in-focus until arriving center stage; this, along with the cramped 1.85:1 compositions, adds to the claustrophobic feel, as if every smidgen of viable life had been sucked right out of the interiors.

With this predominating doom-laden atmosphere, it comes as little surprise that when Essex manages to locate his brother, and he and Vivian are merrily greeted and invited into the sibling's modest ramshackle of an apartment, tragedy strikes almost immediately: while Essex is out buying firewood, a rather sinister-looking man rolls a bomb under the door, killing everyone inside. Essex spies the man hurrying from the building, chases after him, but before he can catch up, someone else steps out of from the shadows, slashes the man's throat, and then disappears. Going through the man's pockets, Essex discovers a list with six names on it, including his brother's; to delve further into the matter, Essex assumes the dead man's identity as "Redstone".

What Essex uncovers is a small selective group who has taken the game of Quintet to a considerably more serious (and lethal) level: where each loser is hunted down and killed by the winner, who, we're to believe, is allowed to experience and embrace the thrill of life. As Grigor (Fernando Rey), the overseer of this twisted little tournament tells it, it's only when a person is near death are they afforded the opportunity to seize upon the adrenaline-filled rush that brings one to the fullest brink of existence. Even though the penalty for participating is possibly death, a sensory-heightened experience is perceived as being preferable to the drab, dour life of a mere simpleton. What all this boils down to essentially is the game of Quintet serving as a metaphor for life, with Essex, fighting to preserve his sense of humanity in an inhumane world, as the stalwart embodyment of both decency and hope.

Unfortunately, though, Quintet is so killjoyingly slow and meandering a piece that whatever grand intentions Robert Altman had going into it are all but buried in a sea of heavy-handedness and top-heavy "meanings". He doesn't exactly spell things out for you here, but the oppressive surroundings speak considerable volumes as it is, and Altman hasn't seen fit to give the proper definition and shaping to most of the scenes, so everything comes off as ill-defined and imprecise. Some of this is due to Altman's sluggish execution, and some because of the slow rather than deliberate pacing, with the lack of urgency and dramatic underpinnings in Essex's character the most fatal flaw. Maybe if it had been written where after Essex integrated himself into the Quintet tournament to ferret out Vivian's killer and became seduced by the dark allure of the game instead of acting righteous and morally superior to it, there'd be some tension in his quest and grounding to his actions. But the way it's been laid out, Essex is never really in any physical danger until the last fifteen minutes, and no moral confliction after Vivian's death, so the story has little very little dramatic drive to sustain itself. Essex mingles with the other characters, but none of the encounters amount to anything because everybody's busy talking in half-truths and uttering banal Bertand Russell-ish philosophies.

To break up the talking-heads-monotony that comes to define Quintet, Altman throws in some pretty graphic violence -- though, due to his howlingly bad staging, induces more in the way of unintentional laughs than horrific gasps. A morose woman carries on a detached conversation with Essex as she dreamily places her hand on a hot grill, turning her fleshy appendage into a bubbling marshmallow. A man and woman have a rather lengthy conversation while a dead woman is seated between them, with the impaling instrument still sticking through both ends of her face. More throat slashings ensue, as does a poorly executed action sequence involving Essex and arch-enemy St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman, who was so much the better villain in Burt Reynolds' classic crime thriller Sharky's Machine) chasing each other around a patch of thin ice. Ludicrous, all of this.

Quintet is possessive of more than a few beautiful moments -- the scene where Essex lays Vivian's body into an icy river and watches it slowly float away is a keeper -- and there's something about the film in general that keeps you watching despite yor better judgment, as if you can't quite believe a major Hollywood release could be allowed to play out in such a joyless, sommulent manner wihtout some kind of plot-twisting "kicker" to justify it. I have no idea why I've watched this thing three or four times all the way through, why I'm drawn to a film where the cons most definitely outweight the pros, or why I'm convinced that there is a good time to be had in enduring Quintet's countless faults rather than basking in its few glories. The film is clearly a botch, but it's not exactly disreputable because Altman has honestly tried to make an original motion picture here that's imaginative and helplessly fascinating. It just would have helped had he contributed a couple of brain cells to the script rather than a lot of hot air to his bloated, fogged-over aspirations.

Drink a strong mug of coffee before taking this on -- and switching off your bullshit detector, too!

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originally posted: 02/09/03 04:38:48
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User Comments

3/27/16 FireWithFire Whaddya know? Altman couldn't do Sci-Fi worth shit,either! 1 stars
12/31/10 Gregory W Isaksson gets it wrong. Essex, the "hero", duh, is the one who cares. 4 stars
12/08/10 Milan Hladik Marvelled at slow pace preceding our click-click era. Magnetic 4 stars
12/03/10 William Boatman Hypnotic. It cured my insomnia. Newman brought minimalistic acting to a new low. 2 stars
12/22/09 Joe M For some reason I have a soft spot in my heart for this movie. 4 stars
11/25/06 mr. mike newman's own 3 stars
11/26/05 John C. Clark Boring, directionless, bleak without a meaning - Charles Tatum says it all. 1 stars
9/21/05 p. rejda everyone left theater except for about 4 people when we saw it years ago... 1 stars
4/19/05 Joe Fasilio Unbelievably bad. 1 stars
2/27/05 mike daddy after viewing it 4 times over 25 years, have finally grown to like and respect it. 4 stars
6/23/04 Joe Spann I enjoyed it. 4 stars
11/08/03 tatum Getting paid to watch this crap would have made my year 1 stars
8/21/03 Rich Alan Far too deep for the simple minds of paid critics. 4 stars
2/21/03 James Danford It's definately worth a look - about 5 times to absorb it. It's really one of my favorite 4 stars
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  02-Feb-1979 (R)
  DVD: 25-Apr-2006



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